Getting the map show on the road

UP FRONT

March 08, 2001|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SOMEWHERE, in your basement, in your attic, shoved in the back of a drawer, or maybe even in the glove box of your car, is an old and out-of-date road map. Maybe it's a map of Maryland with Spiro T. Agnew on the cover, or one that shows what this area looked like long before the Baltimore Beltway or Interstate 83 were constructed.

While most people are inclined to throw away such old, likely torn, likely misfolded and relatively useless maps, some people hang on to them, and even cherish them.

If you're one of the latter, or just have some curiosity about old road maps, you won't want to miss the first Lord Baltimore Filling Stations Road Map Swap Meet and Show from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Women's Club in Catonsville. It's where road-map collectors will gather to sell or trade their wares. The public is welcome to browse and buy.

"Road maps offer nostalgia and a piece of history," says Owings Mills resident Noel Levy, organizer of the event. "Road maps represent a specific period of time of America before the interstate and the turnpike, and America before the Depression. Road maps are great sources of information. They tell you where parks are and universities and airports and hospitals. ... They have a flavor of the times."

Levy has a collection of more than 25,000 road maps, some dating to the early 1920s and '30s, and from every state in the nation and places around the world.

The 46-year-old Levy began his collection as a child riding in the family station wagon. Whenever his father would stop at a gas station to fill up the tank or let the family make a much-needed pit stop, Levy helped himself to the free maps. His father would often yell at him for taking the maps at every single stop and toss them away.

This, of course, led Levy to take even more maps. As an adult, Levy kept on collecting maps, finding them in antiques stores and flea markets. His collection has become so vast that he now runs an online map store, where collectors from around the world can choose from an inventory of more than 12,000 maps. (The 25,000 maps in his personal collection are not for sale.)

Levy doesn't think it's odd that a person might want to collect road maps. "People collect all sorts of things ... lunch boxes, Pez dispensers, Beanie Babies or old spark plugs ... this is really no different," he says.

Road maps originally were given away at gas stations as a way of building customer loyalty, especially during the Depression when money was tight and not a lot of people owned cars or drove them very far, Levy says. The gas station owners wanted to keep the few customers they had.

There aren't many freebies at gas stations anymore, and a new road map will now cost you a few bucks.

Most people take their road maps for granted, Levy says - that is, until they're lost somewhere off the interstate. At that point, many will root around in the glove box, and somewhere among the receipts for oil changes, napkins from fast-food restaurants and brochures from tourist spots like the butter-churning museum, they'll find a trusty road map that will save us from being permanently lost.

The fact that road maps are considered very utilitarian items makes them all the more interesting to collect, Levy says. "This is a relatively new hobby, particularly for this area." Road-map swap meets and shows are more common and popular in the Midwest, he adds. He guesses that the reason is people have to travel farther to get places and therefore own more maps.

Saturday's show is a first for this area. It's been named the Lord Baltimore Filling Stations Road Map Swap Meet and Show in honor of this area's unique contribution to the history of gas stations in America.

The Lord Baltimore Filling Stations (incorporated in 1921) were named for the city's namesake by Louis Blaustein's American Oil Co. (Amoco). Blaustein was an early advocate of unleaded gasoline and invented the first "visible" gas pump.

Levy says many road-map collectors are drawn to the maps for their connection to the oil companies. Many years before corporate mergers became everyday events, there were somewhere around 500 or 600 different oil companies. This was before the middle of the 20th century. Many of these companies had no more than five or six filling stations each. As more and more people collect maps, more and more long-gone oil companies are being discovered.

There are many other reasons that people collect road maps, Levy says. Some people like the map's cartography or the elaborate artwork that often graced the cover of early maps. Norman Rockwell is said to have illustrated several maps for the General Drafting Co., which supplied maps for Esso Oil.

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